When Russia embarked on its war in Ukraine, one of its undeclared goals was shoring up its position in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, and indeed in Moldova as a whole. Instead, the unrecognized republic has become one of the most vulnerable places on the map of what the Kremlin sees as the “Russian world.” Now Moscow runs the risk of losing its outpost on the Dniester River altogether.
Not so long ago, Transnistria was the archetypal frozen conflict playing into the hands of the Kremlin. The government of the breakaway region’s main city Tiraspol has long publicly stated that Transnistria is Russian and will one day be formally recognized as such.
For decades, a largely symbolic military presence of 1,500 Russian troops in Transnistria has strengthened Russia’s position there. Those troops comprise two components: a peacekeeping contingent that has been there for thirty years, during which the conflict has remained frozen (something Moscow has prided itself upon), and Russian troops left to guard a Soviet-era ammunitions depot in the Transnistrian village of Cobasna, not far from the Ukrainian border.
For many years, the Moldovan capital Chisinau has seen its government alternate between pro-Russian and pro-European forces. Moscow had hoped that one day, it could use Transnistria to get all of Moldova back on its side by overseeing the return of the breakaway republic to Chisinau’s control, on condition that it would have special status within the country. By reincorporating the pro-Russian region into Moldova, Moscow believed Transnistrian voters would tip the balance in its favor and ensure that the country was always led by a pro-Russian government instead of continuing to drift toward the West. This is why Moscow has never recognized Transnistria’s independence.
But now Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have dashed any chances of Chisinau ever turning again toward Russia. In June this year, Moldova was granted EU candidate status, alongside Ukraine. Any future Moldovan government will be pro-European.
Back in the spring, when few could imagine that the Ukrainian armed forces would be able to stop the advance of Russian troops, never mind launch their own counterattack, it seemed that once Ukraine was defeated, Transnistria and Moldova would be next. Russian Major General Rustam Minnekaev even said publicly that Transnistria was one of the targets of Moscow’s “special military operation.”
At that time, it seemed entirely possible that Russia might take control of all of southern Ukraine, giving it a corridor right up to Moldova’s borders. Today, following Russia’s humiliating retreat from the Kharkiv region, there is no longer any talk of Russian troops taking Odesa and reaching the Moldovan border.
Instead, the overall picture for Russia looks bleaker with every passing day. Even Russia’s most fervent patriots do not deny that their country has been routed on the Ukrainian front. Ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21 of a partial mobilization, fresh blood to swell the ranks was being recruited in Russian prisons. Donetsk and Luhansk, whose salvation was one of the purported aims of the “operation,” are being shelled more heavily than before Russia’s invasion, and local officials are being blown up in their own offices.
In other areas where Russia also claims the role of a security guarantor, it’s not much better. Azerbaijan and Armenia have resumed their war: fighting that Moscow had supposedly stopped in 2020. More recently, another military conflict erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, despite them both belonging to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. These factors cannot fail to take their toll on Russia’s authority and influence over its neighbors.
Amid Moscow’s numerous diplomatic and military failings, Transnistria is becoming a tempting—and relatively easy—target for neighboring Ukraine. Kyiv’s claims that its armed forces could easily take control of the self-proclaimed republic are more than just talk.
Russian troops there serve side by side with local residents: Transnistrians who are Russian passport holders. For the latter, military service has more to do with earning a decent wage by local standards than it does with identity. This puts their willingness to fight in doubt, especially since it would be hard to send in reinforcements from Russia: given the Russian army’s failure to carve out a corridor through southern Ukraine, they could not make their way there overland, and flying them in would risk them being targeted by Ukraine’s air defenses.
Taking Transnistria would be a clear win for Kyiv. For a start, it could restock its arsenal with weapons from Cobasna. In addition, it would be a resounding victory over Russia. Losing its outpost on the Dniester River would be far more shocking and painful for Moscow than its recent retreat from the Kharkiv region.
For now, Ukraine hasn’t taken any concrete steps toward Transnistria: the most it has done is privately ask Moldova to open a second front against Russia in the breakaway region, which Chisinau declined to do. But there are signs that Russia is planning to stage a coup in Chisinau, which could provoke Kyiv to take action.
Despite being held under house arrest since May on treason and corruption charges, the Kremlin’s longtime partner in Moldova, former president Igor Dodon, regularly calls for mass protests that could bring about a snap presidential election, something the Communist Party led by former president Vladimir Voronin would also like to see.
The fugitive politician and businessman Ilan Shor has gone one step further. Having fled abroad to avoid a jail sentence for a fraud conviction, he has organized an ongoing anti-government rally that began on September 18 in the center of Chisinau. With claims that 50,000 people will turn out, complete with tents and a stage for speeches, the protests should have all the trappings of a revolution.
The factor Shor is relying on to bring people to the streets is the cost of Russian gas, which is currently an unprecedentedly high $1,800 per thousand cubic meters in Moldova, and has caused prices for pretty much everything in the impoverished country to rise.
Shor, Dodon, Voronin, and their supporters argue that the country is facing the prospect of a very uncomfortable winter, and all because Moldova’s pro-EU government led by President Maia Sandu has fallen out with its strategic partner Russia, and is neither willing nor able to reach an agreement with Moscow on an affordable gas price. If they were in charge, there would be no such problem, of course.
Russia has done its best to support such claims. A delegation of Moldovan deputies from the Shor party (named after its leader) and the Communist Party visited Moscow on September 9 and met with Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee. According to the Shor party’s press service, the topics of discussion included finding a solution to provide Moldova with gas at an affordable price.
No sooner had the Moldovans departed than Slutsky sent an official letter to Shor inviting them to return to discuss a roadmap for solving existing problems. The signal was clear: Russia is prepared to compromise, but the current Moldovan government is not, and should therefore be traded in for one that is. The revolutionary scenario instigated by Shor is designed to bring about that regime change, but whether or not that is possible remains to be seen.
The key question is how far Ukraine, Romania, and the West in general will be prepared to go to stop Chisinau falling back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, especially while Russia remains at war with Ukraine. The answer is impossible to predict, but the fighting in Ukraine has certainly expanded what is possible. It’s not such a huge leap from launching missile strikes against Russia’s Belgorod region to entering a pro-Russian enclave 1,000 kilometers from Russia.
There is every chance that destabilization in Moldova incited by Russia will prompt Kyiv and its allies to deprive Moscow of all its levers of influence there once and for all by purging the self-proclaimed Transnistria republic of Russia’s military presence there.